Link to Introduction

First time reader? Start here

The River Clyde

The River Clyde
The River Clyde Near Midculter in Lanarkshire

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Part Four. The End Game. Chapter II. The Ultimate Check 1. The Fast Moves

This very long and emotionally draining chapter needs to be discussed part by part.

June 5-19, 1548

Kate has caged the tiger and now lets him prowl around her home, but always on a leash.

Lymond is also a self-described snake in the garden of Flaw Valleys, a feline Kate does not trust but does find irresistible to nudge and probe. What are Kate's motives with Lymond? Foremost among them is trying to ferret out his story and come to understand just what makes him tick. To do this, she needs to gain his confidence so he will share his confidences with her. That is no easy task because Lymond has erected so many defenses. However, she is remarkably good at breaking them down, often by doing and saying less. He tells her more than he wants in his few outbursts.

For example, when Kate asks Lymond why he won't "bite back" at her jibes, he answers her honestly:
"Because...I am a constant practitioner of the art and you are not."
In other words, "I am a professional at verbal attacks and you, dear Kate, for all your wit and insight, are a rank amateur by comparison." In short, he refuses to attack and hurt her when he knows he could.

Kate also talks about the "normal life" on two occasions, wondering aloud if Lymond believes he will ever have one. She knows of his "permanently unsettled regime" from Gideon and seems genuinely concerned Lymond has created for himself conditions so dire and desperate that he may not survive them and, if he does, he will forever be an outcast.

Kate's probing eventually gets to Lymond. At one point he experiences an outburst of passionate feeling when she presses too hard:
"...I prize freedom of the mind above freedom of the body. I claim the right to make my own mistakes and keep quiet about them...My life is at your disposal, but my thoughts are not."
Pythonissa, the Sorceress
Kate recovers instantly, saying she only wanted to know "a few basic facts," such as whether or not he eats goose eggs. It is a nice recovery, but she must have been deeply stung by the depth and ferocity of his anger. In fact, at this point she decides to stop probing Lymond, and he responds with an unexpected smile and an odd sort of compliment, calling Kate "Pythonissa," a sorceress. His defenses are definitely weakening. He genuinely likes Kate.

Kate is also interested to observe Lymond's attempts to get on better terms with Philippa. His efforts fail utterly. The child loathes him with all her heart and wants him gone from her home. Even his touching the family's possessions is an affront to her. Her beloved music, something she and Lymond have in common, cannot break Philippa's rock-hard defenses. She is more stubborn than he is! Kate listens to the exchange, as Philippa lashes out at Lymond, saying,
"Leave my mother and father alone. Nobody wants you here!" 
Kate was afraid for her.
Italian Tenor Lute
Padua, 17th Century
Why is Kate afraid for Philippa? It is surely not because she thinks Lymond might hurt the child. It is because Kate knows the pernicious effects of simmering, unchecked hatred, especially in one so young. It warps the soul. In fact, Kate has gone out of her way to try to teach Philippa if not forgiveness then at least compassion for Lymond, to no avail.

But out of this disastrous scene comes a moment of rare candor for Lymond as Kate asks and he answers questions about his past. She learns his mother originally taught him to play, despite his father's animosity towards music ("not only did music make men mad, only madmen indulge in it") and, by implication, hostility towards Lymond himself. Interesting. We know very little about Lymond's father.

Tiger, Contemplating Giving His
Hind Legs for Lymond's Coordination
Kate continues the gentle probing to find out more about Lymond's past, about this father who had no use for music, something she knows must have tormented Lymond. She learns nothing more about the father but does find out something she had not known: Lymond has a brother who is quite the athlete. At first she accepts Lymond's assent that his brother is the athlete in the family and Lymond's gifts lie in music and languages, that is, until she recalls what Gideon had said after his stay with Lymond in the Tower: "He can outshoot them and outfight them and outplay them: he's got a coordination that a hunting tiger would give his hind legs for."

Thus, Kate realizes, Lymond's demurral is another feint, another disguise. He now goes on to admit, however obliquely, that he is not only a musician and a polyglot, he is also a gifted athlete, soldier, and much more. When Lymond says, "Nothing arouses suspicion quicker than genuine, all-round proficiency," we know he is not only speaking from his own experience, he is also being disingenuous about his talents, skills, and abilities.

Aside: Notice that Lymond tells Kate he "never cared for it" when referring to military skills, yet he excels at them as he does at everything, and he has become skilled at leading men, too.

Almost amazingly, once "the pressure was lifted," Lymond discloses even more about his past when he refers to his ultimate crime against his sister. He stops instantly at this disclosure, realizing that Kate's patient listening has opened the floodgates of his memories and previously unspoken thoughts, "one of the penalties of being incommunicado for five years." He has had no one, no one, to talk to for five years, the years during which his mother says he became on "artist in the vivisection of the soul."

Now that she has cracked the shell and is peering inside, Kate cannot resist asking what is on her mind: is there any chance this young man could ever have what might be considered a "normal life"? Lymond reveals one last, dangerous fact to Kate: that his brother wants to kill him. He does not explain and Kate knows enough not to press him further, but Lymond does offer her one assurance about his brother's desire to kill him: "If it's going to happen, it won't happen here." Well, now, that's a comfort to Kate, I'm sure.

Gideon returns the next day (June 19) with terrible news for Lymond: Samuel Harvey is dying. After talking to Kate, Gideon offers Lymond a horse so he can try to reach Harvey before it is too late. It says a great deal about Gideon and Kate that he wants her opinion and approval before offering the horse, and I am sure Gideon is extremely curious if Kate's opinion of the unwanted house guest has changed while he was away. It has, so much so that Kate probably encouraged Gideon to move quickly with this plan (she, after all, was "already through the door" collecting what Lymond would need for his travels).

Once again, Gideon vents his frustration over the waste of a life that Lymond represents. The fact that his "own people" in Scotland have branded him a traitor when it is clear to Somerville that this cannot be true infuriates every practical bone in his practical body. How practical? As soon as the visitor was gone, both he can Kate "turned and went about their business" with no fuss or gnashing of teeth over whether their decision was the right one.

We find out how Will Scott has spent the two weeks while Lymond was at Flaw Valleys: looking for his former Master and finding instead two members of Lymond's old gang, one friendly and one very much not.

Will gives up and goes back to his father's home, only to find there Richard Crawford, who quickly learns from Will's agile reaction that the young Scott has learned a trick or two from Lymond. Here is something odd: it appears that Richard does not know until this moment that Lymond escaped from Threave. I suppose it is possible that word had not reached Richard of his brother's disappearance from Threave, but given his passionate pursuit of Lymond, it seems unlikely that this is the first he has heard of it. I think it more likely that Richard is expressing his disbelief that this was less a miraculous escape and more a carefully executed breakout with help, possibly even from Will. Richard remains unconvinced of the younger Scott's return to the fold, which is why Culter refuses to discuss the current political situation in front of him.

The French fleet is anchored off the Scottish coast and France is promising to help drive the English out of Scotland for two huge concessions: the first is a number of Scottish forts; the second is of far greater strategic importance. They want the little Queen sent to France to be raised in the French court and affianced to whomever the Dowager Queen and the French King decide.

This seems like a high price to pay, but as Buccleuch and Culter point out to each other, the other option is worse: England keeping Scotland under the English heel while the French King seeks alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor.

Buccleuch, with his typically "brilliant lack of tact" asks after Sybilla, and Richard's tart reply make it clear that, if Lymond is trying to drive a wedge between Richard and the rest of the Culters, Richard is making his task an easy one. Wat Scott is a shrewd observer; no one could survive as a border laird as long as Buccleuch without having a keen eye and a sharp mind. Just not a tame and tactful tongue.

Richard, Buccleuch, and Tom Erskine are among those present the following day at Holyrood when the decision is announced to send the little Queen to France via a circuitous route, one the Scots and French hope will leave the English fretting "at an empty mousehole" along the east coast.

Tom has the decidedly unpleasant task of relaying to Richard the news from Lord Grey that the English will not ransom Christian. They want an even exchange: her for Lymond. It appears neither the English nor the Scots have any idea of Lymond's whereabouts! Wouldn't they be surprised to know he's almost just around the corner.

Lymond is waiting at George Douglas's town house for George to return from the same meeting at Holyrood. Notice how friend George so seamlessly moves from side to side (English to Scottish), an ease undoubtedly best explained by the fact that George has only one side: his own. He has money from the French to play for their team and a safe-conduct letter to the English asking for the return of his son, so life is good for George. That is, until he swings into his Edinburgh house to find Lymond.

George has the upper hand for the simple reason that, for Lymond's threat of blackmail to work, Samuel Harvey has to be alive and he is not. It is interesting to find out that the proof of his death was convincing "because, rare among George Douglas's fantasies, the story was true." George is perfectly willing and able to bend, distort, and otherwise torture truth to suit his ends, making him an especially dangerous adversary and a difficult partner.

But it is only later, after what appears to be a rather lengthy discourse ("after the man had come to light the tapers"), that George administers the ultimate blow: Grey wants Lymond in exchange for Christian Stewart. This is news to Lymond, a fact he does nothing to hide from Douglas. Lymond readily assents to George's plan to use the safe-conduct letter to get him across the border and into Berwick so he can offer himself in exchange for Christian. It is an arrangement that suits both men, which explains why George is "for once in his life...perfectly frank."

Lymond's final, bitter quotation refers to a form of excommunication in the Catholic church, through which the excommunicant is anathematized and delivered to Satan for the mortification of his body. His final words are the most chilling and worth remembering:
"Why else was I born?"
This is a recurring theme in The Lymond Chronicles, Francis Crawford's search for a purpose and meaning to his life. He believes, at this moment, the meaning may be found in the sacrifice of his life for Christian's.

  1. Why does Kate begins to "thaw" towards Lymond despite the way he treated her and Philippa on his earlier visit? He still seems distant and even a bit hostile.
  2. What does Lymond see in Kate that makes him eventually open up to her?
  3. Is Lymond trying to drive a wedge between his family members, with Sybilla and Mariotta on one side and Richard on the other? If so, why?
  4. Do you think Richard really had not heard of Lymond's escape from Threave?
  5. Why does George Douglas wait so long to tell Lymond the most important piece of information, i.e., that the English want to exchange Christian Stewart for him?
Favorite Line
"...Gideon would help cook his father if the cannibal quoted poetry at him," said Kate.
Words that Describe Lymond in The Fast Moves
  • reserved
  • apologetic
  • undemanding
  • reticent
  • clever
  • witty
  • engaging
  • ingratiating
  • patient (with Philippa)
  • rueful
  • amiable
  • insightful
  • honest
  • grateful
  • poised
  • mocking
  • bitter
  • resigned


  1. I've just discovered the Lymond series and this wonderful blog. I'm slowly working my way through all the posts, and I'm really enjoying them! I notice the last post was from 2015 . . . have you stopped updating it?

  2. This is the best reading of Dunnett I've ever seen. Love it--it's insightful, comprehensive, and so useful. I sure hope to see it continue. I'd buy it if it was published :)

  3. Thank you for your generous comments. Coming in 2017...I will finish the commentary on The Game of Kings. In case you haven't heard, the production company responsible for the wonderful Poldark series has bought the rights to The Lymond Chronicles. This is a powerful spur to me to get back to work on this blog. Please stay tuned for more!

  4. Please finish it ... I'm desperate to read more! I've really been enjoying this so much, it's so enlightening. Coincidentally saw your article on Agnes Herries in the Whispering Gallery magazine this morning ... I had thought bits of it seemed familiar!

    1. Alayne, Thank you! I have written several more sections but I want to finish the rest of the book before posting them. I admit to "stealing" parts of my blog for the article on Agnes and an earlier one on George Douglas for The Whispering Gallery! It's a format that permits a more in depth look at a small character. It was fun to flesh out Agnes (and the similarities to Lydia Bennet came to me as I was hurriedly writing that little piece).

    2. I haven't seen the one on George Douglas, I will have to seek that out, but I loved your observations about Agnes and Lydia Bennet, another great favourite. It's the care taken over even the minor characters that makes Dunnett such a joy to read. Can't wait for your next installments, so excited to hear there's more!